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in short, the aspects of ˜body™.
From this perspective people may be rei¬ed, just as wealth and similar
items may be personi¬ed.18 For instance, men are rei¬ed, or self-reify, when
presenting themselves in decorations that make them an explicit object of
attention. Ritual intervention heightens one of the regular processes of social
life in which the singularity of the person is manifest. The conditions under
which people appear as things are also the conditions under which they appear
as whole and singular entities.
This is, we may say, the singularity not of individualism but of relationism. In
order to appear in another™s eyes as someone of whom the other takes account,
the person appears oriented to that particular relationship. So the person who
stands for (objecti¬es) that relationship is in effect eliminating all others in
favour of the one. Thus someone may be presented as an initiate (in relation to a
senior generation), a bride (about to meet a groom), a clansman (of this group
rather than another), with his or her multiple identities eclipsed by the one
of the moment. We could call that eclipse an abstraction or detachment. The
person is abstracted from all other social contexts in order to exist, however
momentarily, in one alone, like assuming a particular role or taking on a
category position. Whereas the process of detachment itself belongs to the
partitioning of persons, the image presents an already completed thing. It is
the visible moment when an initiate, a bride or a clansman, in appearing in
˜one™ form, in him or herself appears whole and entire. And the person appears
whole and entire from the perspective of a speci¬c other. It is to her husband™s
clan that a prospective wife exists as a bride. This is the image of the woman
that they have, so to speak, created. They own it.
If I say, to experiment with Euro-American constructs, that persons may
be owned when they appear as things, I can also say they are things because

of their capacity to be seen by others as an embodiment of one particular
relationship, that is, because they are owned. Let us pursue these Melanesian
fabrications of things with reference to other Euro-American constructs; I
digress brie¬‚y on intellectual property and commodi¬cation.
In an inspired rendering of ritual as a kind of intellectual property, Harrison
proposes that ˜a useful way of viewing intellectual property is that it is the own-
ership, not of things but of classes of things, of their images or typi¬cations™
(1992: 235).19 But “ to continue the analogy with legal processes “ let me trans-
pose that insight from ownership of ritual to one of the effects of ritual as a
practice of intervention. If we ask what is owned of the person made visible “
the image that has been created “ then we might want to say it is the idea
or concept of the relationship that they embody. When a male initiate steps
forward all decked out in his transformed body, a new member of a clan, his
clansmen own so to speak the concept of this person as a male clansman.
He has to look, act and behave like one. His clanmates acknowledge him by
claiming him; they see in him, at that moment, the embodiment of a concept.
What they own is that concept or image of him manifest as his ˜body™, and
they own it as they own themselves.20 In Harrison™s terms, the image as a
typi¬cation is constructed of generic and universal elements, anyone in this
role will look like this. That is what ritual requires the particular initiate to act
Leach (2002: 728) comments on male initiation practices among a people
from outside the Highlands, Nekgini speakers from Reite, Madang Province,
which are predicated on the fact that a man is nurtured on his land:

The work of the father and his kin, and of the lands upon which they nurture
children, is to produce potential from which form can be made. There is noth-
ing mystical about this process, as that form is one which is given by the set of
relationships into which that potential person is propelled. The boy is this man™s
nephew and not another™s, this set of cross-cousin™s joking-partner, not another™s.

The father™s af¬nes (his wife™s kin and their spirits) give form to the appearance
of the boys at initiation as a result of the kind of nurture they bestow. (The boys™
substance comes from their father™s land.) Now the importance of initiation
being carried out among the particular persons who give the initiate™s social
presence its particular form depends on there also being a sense in which they
bring into being the universal or generic (sister™s son). In Reite, it might be
truer to say af¬ne™s sister™s husband™s son. Through their actions they reify this
speci¬c man as at once their sister™s son and as their sister™s son. The latter is
an abstraction, an image, an idea. The same ritual can be performed for any
boy precisely because each is an instantiation of a sister™s son.

And through the intervention of the compensation agreement, something
very similar was to have been Miriam™s lot. Members of her clan claimed
dispositional control over their sisters and daughters, whereas the clan to
which she would be joined through the marriage had claims on her as a
prospective wife and mother. (This was complicated in her case by the fact
that she had been brought up by her maternal kin, from a part of the same
tribe into which she was now to marry, and that at her father™s death they
assumed they had rights of bestowal over her.) The moment at which Miriam
was detached from all her other relationships and appeared as the single and
whole embodiment of the concept of reciprocation between clans was the
moment at which we could talk of both sides both enjoying ownership in her.
This allowed people to draw on multiple rationales for the overall gift, com-
prising homicide compensation for the secondary cause of death, mortuary
payments to maternal kin (˜head pay™) and reasons to do with past marriages
between the groups. At one point Muke insisted that, as an element in the
overall payment, this last was the principal rubric that applied to Miriam; she
was not being sold as part of a homicide compensation but returned as part
of life cycle payments.
The general conditions of a mortuary payment were relevant. A clan sending
out its women in marriage contributes to the prosperity of other clans; through
its offshhoots “ a sister™s child is called a ˜transplant™21 “ maternal kin expand
their own spheres of in¬‚uence. So if these progeny prosper through their
guardianship then, in turn, as we have seen, death injures them. When their
transplant was killed, observed Muke in his af¬davit, the ˜root people™ on one
side felt that the other side had violated their divine relationship. In local
idiom, the deceased™s ˜bones™ or ˜head™ (male wealth) should be sent back by
the patriclan to the maternal clan that had in its lifetime overseen its welfare.
Such wealth, the head pay, is regarded as regenerative for the future. But if kin
request that an actual granddaughter of the woman be returned, then they are
thinking of how their groups have intermarried in the past. They look for a
˜skull in a netbag™, that is the strength or value (bones) of a woman™s progeny
in and within the form of another woman (the netbag or womb), as O™Hanlon
and Frankland (1986) describe (see also Muke; PNGLR 1997: 132). A woman
who marries under the rubric of a skull in a netbag, as Miriam was doing, is
meeting obligations set up by previous marriages.
What kinds of body parts are these ˜bones™ and ˜womb™? I suggest that
the bones are not conceptualised as parts but rather as wholes; they are the
whole body made manifest from the perspective of the claimants. That is,
the wealth they see from the hand of the donors is equated with the claims
they have (in the image of strong bones); they own the person in the form of

the bones (wealth) they can expect in return.22 And it was not any, generic,
woman (womb) who would satisfy the need for the maternal kin to recover
what it had given in the past. A particular relationship was singled out: she
should be someone standing in the relation of granddaughter23 to the actual
woman earlier sent in marriage. This is the importance of each side owning ˜a
granddaughter™, embodied in Miriam, that the one could give and the other
A thing created through commodi¬cation also embodies a concept; its
value must be speci¬able in abstract terms against equivalent items. Recall the
Mt. Hagen Lodge conversation, which included a discussion of bridewealth
(Gewertz and Errington 1999: 127). The proprietor™s nephew had observed that
with money as the medium of exchange women became like commodities:
money made women equal to anything and everything one might want to
buy in a way they were not in the past. They became not just equal to things
but substitutable one for another (cf. Demian 2001 ). This is the process that
Minnegal and Dwyer (1997: 55) described when people turn from exchanging
to selling pigs (my emphasis, omitting theirs).

A pig is brought to an exchange not as a pig per se but as a particular pig. Its
particular constellation of attributes, and its history, make it not only appropriate
but, in a real sense, the only appropriate offering. Where pigs are sold, by contrast,
attributes such as size, sex and colour may in¬‚uence the going price but no longer
bear upon the appropriateness of the particular pig to the intended transaction.
A pig is suitable for sale simply [i.e. universally] because it is a pig. Thus it seems
that the idea of ˜pig™ itself has become rei¬ed. The boundary between ˜pig™ as a
category and other things has become more salient in guiding social action than
the differences between particular pigs.

Note that the thing created through commodi¬cation carries with it cate-
gorical information about itself and does not require contextualisation beyond
its evaluation in relation to similar entities. This is how initiates may be com-
pared to one another, as are brides over the generations during which clans
have intermarried. Unlike a commodity, however, although a person may be
presented as a thing with generic and universal attributes, far from being de-
tached from its social origins each image points precisely to the source of its
creation. Moreover, sisters™ sons may all be alike in the form and conventions
by which they display their tie to their mother™s brothers, but substitutability
is likely to be hedged around with restrictive rules. There will be conditions
about ˜classi¬catory™ equivalents, that is, who quali¬es as a stand in “ which
mother™s brothers will count what persons as sister™s sons. Ownership applies
only if certain relational preconditions are met.

These two digressions bring us to the question of what rights ownership
brings, presaged in the previous chapter. What entitlements ¬‚ow from the
ownership of an image? In the case of ritual as performance, one may well be
able to imagine reproductive rights such as copyright, as Harrison suggests.
The entitlement to perform a ritual, or produce a song or dance, anticipates
the particular realisation of a conceptual entity. Certain people may lay claim
to the knowledge involved or to rights of sponsorship or performance; these
may or may not be entitlements that can be transferred to others. In the case of
persons, compensation or other forms of reciprocation are designed to provide
an abstract equivalent to the value once embodied in a now absent other. The
claims of Miriam™s father™s mother™s kin included the fact that they had been
deprived of a reproductive opportunity, not as a matter of the continuing
existence of the deceased person but of their continuing relationship through
him to others. However, the question of deciding what might or might not
count as rights does not take us very far.
Consider, rather, the question of what public intervention, legal or ritual,
creates. Having set up the possibility of persons being owned, as thought“
objects and as things, I am forced to the conclusion that it is in the very
activation of ownership as a question of rights and claims that an intervention
of a kind has already taken place.
Euro-American understandings of property ownership invariably entail the
ownership of rights; one owns not the thing as such but rights in respect to
other persons in relation to the thing. Yet rights is an awkward idiom for the
ideas of ownership to which I have been referring, where ownership seems
a question of expanding or augmenting identity, an entitlement that allows
those “ and no others “ who claim ownership to re-state their own identity
(maternal kin to the sister™s or daughter™s child). People readily enough assert
claims attendant on such connections, staking them out in a manner that
looks like claiming rights, but as an intervention “ as an action “ mobilising
claims shifts the perspective the actors have on one another. Here we need to
remind ourselves of the difference between wholes and parts. If it is plausible
to suggest that what is owned is an image of a person (a concept), then only
an entirety can be owned; rights and claims set up a different social ¬eld
altogether and one in which nothing seems entire. The dispute over Miriam
shows this.

Part-Persons: Agents
There is no simple sense in which one can translate ˜body part™ into the
Melanesian vernaculars I have been presenting; at the same time, the notion

touches at such provocative points on the way persons might be partitioned
that the comparison is inviting to pursue.
I talked, with particular reference to the Papua New Guinea Highlands, of
the presentation of persons as whole forms or bodies. Objecti¬ed from the
perspective of others, the person (the thing“image) is in a speci¬c and thus
singular relationship to them. But whole bodies are, in another sense, part-
persons. From a second perspective that these other persons have, what they
see is divided substance. For in addition to being singular, persons can also
be plural. Because the whole person is detached from other relations, taken
together these relationships compose the person as an entity with a multiple
or plural character. This produces another perspective on the body.
The body™s health and sickness are regarded as the outcome of an amalgam
of actions on the part of multiple others. In this sense it is an assemblage of
parts, not as limbs or organs or tissue but as paternal and maternal substances:
bone and ¬‚esh or blood and semen. Or at least that is the rationale given to
various transactions. Indeed, the very possibility of compensating persons for
the pain they have suffered (the blood of childbirth), for nurture they have
bestowed (mother™s breast milk) or for injury they have endured (damage to
the body) fabricates a view of the body as partible. Through their actions,
including giving or withholding blessings or curses, people bestow bodily
energy on one another. As a result, a person™s substance may be thought of as
body that is a part of other bodies. Who pays and who receives delimits the
claims. Thus the mother™s clan claim the child because they are due wealth
for it; the father™s clan claim the child because they are able to pay wealth for
it. Each side, in ˜growing™ the child for the other, reproduces itself not just
through the child but through each other.
We can, then, imagine the person as distributed or dispersed (Gell 1998)
across a spectrum of relationships, belonging to diverse groupings. Yet al-
though these relationships converge on the one person (rendering the person
a composite of diverse ties), the ties as such are dispersed, and can never be
gathered together in anything but that person. They do not form a further
whole of which the person is a part, as Euro-Americans like to imagine the
individual as part of society. If we construe these relations as ˜parts™, then the
only entity they can be part of is a person.
The shift in perspective is created by taking action. For at the moment when
claims or rights are activated, the singular person (the abstract thing“image)
is then seen to have many social origins, to be a partible entity combining
in itself many particular concrete histories. The point at which a claim is
translated into a gift or the carrying out of a duty is the point at which the

one relationship is (re)perceived to be one among many. The person has other
possible destinies.
Let me explicate further. As soon as ownership is realised in the activation
of claims, persons have to deal with one another as agents. And as soon
as relationships are realised in the activation of ownership, people divide
themselves off from one another. What the mother™s brothers thought they
owned as a product of their own nurture or protection now appears to have
been the result of nurture at others™ hands as well, spirit as well as ¬‚esh, semen as
well as blood. This is because when action is taken or when wealth is mobilised
or when someone seeks to meet an obligation, decisions have to be made,
and these bring into the foregound all those other relationships that demand
taking action, sending wealth or meeting obligations. Realisation creates its
own moment in time, even if no more than a scintilla temporis. Taking action
is itself an intervention in that an abstract category now becomes a particular
entity in a history of particulars. Perhaps the very idea of right or entitlement
or claim is usefully thought of as ownership in an already activated form. Here
what they own, and I take my cue from an observation by Kalinoe (personal
communication), is how persons ˜belong™ to one another.
In the Minj compensation settlement, there were many strands of relation-
ships, past events and old debts being brought together in what would be the
one transaction it was hoped would answer them all. But that one transaction
was in turn to be composed of items of wealth collected by many contribu-
tors, where each would ¬nd himself faced with other, competing, demands on
his resources. Choices had to be made, eliminating one from multiple ways
of acting. If acting requires choosing between alternatives, these are basically
choices between relations “ and thus invariably invoke prior relations. Here
one arrives at a local understanding of agency. Agency is evinced in the ability
of persons to (actively) orient themselves or to align themselves with particular
relationships,24 however foregone a conclusion that decision may seem to be.
This is not the same as free choice (indeed someone may have few options in
the matter) and does not translate directly into the kinds of acts of choice by
which the modern person can be recognised.
Kinship is necessarily predicated on prior relations, on the fact of rela-
tionship. Muke™s (1996) analysis of the Minj case pinpointed the crux of the
matter: kinship on trial. It was not just the clans on trial but a whole set of
suppositions summed up in the term kinship “ the nature of relationships as a
matter of people™s conduct and obligations toward one another. Thus Miriam
was quoted as saying that she initially agreed to the compensation settlement
out of concern for her younger sisters and other clanswomen who might be

asked if she refused (Gewertz and Errington 1999: 125“6). In her af¬davit, as
rendered by judge, she stated that she was willing to be part of her father™s
head pay, but not willing to marry immediately or to marry just anyone. She
felt pressured into probably having to make a quick match, and the payment
process left her feeling humiliated in the eyes of others, ˜ashamed at being
used as a form of compensation™ (Gewertz and Errington 1999: 130, quoting
the judge™s summing up). Indeed, at her ¬rst interview with the press (Palme
9 May 1996), she was reported as being upset and shocked by the decision. (The
same reporter also pointed out the power imbalance between the two sides:
the Tangilka were scattered by warfare over the district; the Konombuka, who
had taken some of them in, was one of the biggest tribes in the area.) Whatever
one might think about Miriam™s predicament and whatever pressure she was
under, the observer is left with the fact of relationship. The question is how to
take into account the obligations they entail. As Muke implied, what does one
do “ what action is to be taken “ about the fact that one clan is in perpetual
spiritual debt to another for the welfare of its progeny?
A set of very particular claims lay behind Miriam™s selection. She was already
well known to her father™s maternal kin and had in fact been living with them
since her mother was sent there for safety during previous ¬ghting while her
father, Willingal, stayed back with his paternal clansmen. In fact, this family “
Willingal™s two wives and ¬ve children “ had been one of several Tangilka
living there as refugees and had as yet paid no ˜rent™ to their hosts. Moreover,
Miriam™s father™s mother™s clan had sent many wives to her father™s clan who
had borne many sons to strengthen it, while few women had come in return.
These were all perceived as putting the one clan into the other™s debt. Miriam™s
marriage would help adjust the imbalance. In short, from this perspective the
case concerning Miriam and her maternal and paternal kinsfolk is all about
the nature of obligations and how people meet debts. The claims that bear in
on the actors as immediate reasons for their actions are based on the fact of
their relationships with one another. It is because of these relationships that
they have to act.
The National Court judge took this on board in his response. Yet it was
the degree of obligation to which he apparently objected. Justice Injia found
that obliging a woman to be part of a head payment was an infringement of
her constitutional rights. For example, her right to equality of treatment was
violated because the custom only targeted eligible women and not men (cf.
Dorney 14 February 1997). Moroever, he opined, although an open request
placed an obligation on any of a clan™s girls, the closer the relationship the
greater the pressure.

How, then, does the ¬nal verdict of this careful and sympathetic judge
avoid the fact of relationship? Once again the tradition versus modernity
rubric comes into play. Pitching the issue of obligation in terms of obligations
between groups, tribes and clans, has the effect of invoking a community
whose interests seemed ˜against™ those of the individual. In focusing on the
way in which groups bring pressure to bear on individual women, this judicial
opinion rehearses a familiar position. Obligations start looking like communal
and thus cultural constraints, and cultural constraints somehow belong to the
domain of tradition and custom. Yet when Miriam herself talked she had
in mind speci¬c individual kin, ˜living men and women™, of whom she was
thinking. She was after all an agent in this herself.25 In an interview with the
Port Moresby Post Courier (20 February 1997), Miriam said she was fearful
about the way her clanspeople would interpret ˜the law™ (the judgement given
a few days earlier). She said that she wanted her people to really understand
the court™s decision: her worry was that ˜[h]er people think the court has given
her “freedom” from a traditional obligation and this could take away her tribal
So Miriam also resorts to the notion of tradition. It is an open question
whether she was referring to cultural constraint or to the exercise of her own
agency. Whichever it was, the latter was not going to be heard. To acknowledge
claims as obligations in the context of kinship looks to modern eyes as perpet-
uating dependency, control and coercion. Human rights discourse “ grounded
in equality between individuals “ sweeps all this away. Muke™s question was
whether it were also to sweep away kinship as such.

I have taken the Euro-American duo, person and thing, as far as it will go
for the kinds of Papuan New Guinean materials presented here. Persons turn
out to be most thing-like (embodying a concept) when they are regarded
as unitary, whole and abstracted from all social contexts but one, and most
person-like (partible) when they ¬nd themselves engaged across a plethora
of relationships in multiple contexts. Under the ¬rst rubric I have wondered
whether it is apposite to refer to persons as owned; the second leads to claims
and rights, and here a person in orienting him- or herself toward speci¬c
relationships can act only for him- or herself. In the former circumstance,
what is owned is a concept or image of the person, made visible (rei¬ed)
through the body. This is an ownership that augments the owner™s status, as
Miriam™s grandmother™s clan increased its sense of itself through the fertility

it bestowed on another. Her offspring, such as Willingal, their sister™s child,
would appear to them in that singular and ideational form as an exemplar
of a ˜sister™s child™. In the latter circumstance, when the fact of relationship “
that a person is always a composite, a part of a plurality “ is translated into
action, this makes visible the obligations and expectations through which kin
in belonging to one another are bound to and divided off from one another.
Action includes acknowledging debts to be discharged, including in turn debts
owed for life.
Miriam™s case invites us to think again about legal interventions that appeal
to human rights. We may think of human rights ¬tting an anonymous entity
abstracted from all social contexts bar one (common humanity) or else, to
the contrary, as investing the subject with the dignity of choice (between
multiple options). But what about the nature of obligation as it inheres in
human interactions, the expectations of dependency in the sense revived by
MacIntyre (1999)? Human rights discourse, at least as invoked by Justice Injia,
the NGO and journalists in this case, would seem to have no place for the fact
of relationship.

Something similar but not identical to this criticism has been voiced by an-
thropologists commenting on human rights interventions. Wilson (1997a;
cf Rapport 1998) strongly advocates greater anthropological application in
the arena, an intellectual resource that he suggests is under-used.26 He would
like to see a comparative study of human rights focussed on the ways transna-
tional discourse materialises in speci¬c contexts.
In order to address human rights violations, Wilson argues, the anthropol-
ogist does not have to choose between copying the supra-local universalism
of legalistic declarations and giving in to a relativity that deems that any local
representation is as good as any other.27 Focus should be on the middle ground
between the local and supra-local. Anthropology, he states, is well suited to
judge the appropriateness of particular accounts of abuse, to pay attention to
historical and biographical cicumstances, to assess concrete examples accord-
ing to the context in which they occur. It could show how people engage in

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